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Tokyo's best spots for autumn leaves, 2013

It's show time, folks! We're still enjoying the overture in central Tokyo, but the main act will start, oh, probably ten days from now. The name of the performance? Crimson Leaves, 2013 Edition.

Crimson leaves or kōyō (紅葉) is how Japan refers to autumn colours, and though Japan is not – contrary to the belief of its citizens – the only country in the world to experience four seasons, it truly owns autumn. Autumn in Japan is beautiful beyond words, pictures or belief.


I've published lists of Tokyo's best autumn spots before, but I thought I'd do a revised edition for 2013. There are so many spots that it's very difficult to select a few. Initially I wanted to limit it to places that can easily be reached by tourists who can't speak Japanese, but eventually included a few that are perhaps not so easy to access, but very most definitely very worth it.  

I haven't included access maps in this specific post, but I've linked to websites or my own posts about all these parks and temples.

Shinjuku Gyoen

Shinjuku Gyoen (新宿御苑) has been my top choice for several years, for several reasons: it's very easy to get to, it's so big that you'll never feel claustrophobic, it has a wide variety of foliage, it has tranquil spots where crowds don't gather.

Access: Couldn't be easier.

Shinjuku Gyoen

Shinjuku Gyoen

Shōwa Kinen Park

Shōwa Kinen Park in Tachikawa requires a bit more effort, but you'll be rewarded by the two most beautiful ginkgo avenues in all of Tokyo. I know Ichō Namiki, the ginkgo-lined avenue that runs from Aoyama 1-chome to Meiji Jingu Gaien, is more famous, but once you've been to Shōwa Kinen Park, you'll be converted.

Take the JR Chūō or JR Chūō/Ōme Line to Tachikawa or Nishi-Tachikawa. The park is next to both stations. That simple fact should warn you that it's massive, so make sure you're wearing comfortable shoes or rent a bicycle.

Read more about Shōwa Kinen Park in this post.

Access: Easy-ish.

Shōwa Kinen Park

Shōwa Kinen Park

University of Tokyo

The ginkgo trees at the University of Tokyo (Hongō campus) are a breathtaking sight towards late November and early December. The trees are planted all over the campus, but the best spot is the road leading from the main gate on Hongō-dori to Yasuda Auditorium. When the leaves start falling, they form a carpet of gold that will boggle your mind and ghast your flabber.

Don't worry about access or security: the campus is open to the public and there should be several visitors when the trees are at their peak.

It's easy to get there via Hongō-Sanchōme Station on the Marunouchi Line or Todaimae Station on the Namboku Line.

Read more about it in this post.

Access: Very easy.

Tōdai

Tōdai

Hibiya Park

Normally I wouldn't have included this park, but it's worth it for one single tree: the kubi-kake ichō (首かけイチョウ) or "risk your neck ginkgo" next to Matsumotoro Restaurant (日比谷松本楼). The tree is 400 years old and it's massive. If it doesn't fill you with awe, you have no heart, no soul and no brain, i.e. you're dead.

Read more about it in this post.

Access: Couldn't be easier.

Hibiya Park

Hibiya Park

Hondo-ji

The best place for Japanese maples is Hondo-ji (本土寺) near Kita-Kogane Station in Chiba. It requires a bit of effort and might be a challenge to tourists unfamiliar with Japan's trains, but you won't be sorry.

Take the Jōban Line from Ueno and get off at Kita-Kogane. If you're on an express train, you'll have to change to a local train at Matsudo. The train ride is about 40 minutes, and the temple is a 10-minute walk from the station's north exit.

Read more about it in this post.

Access: Relatively easy, but it requires a 40-minute train journey.

Hondo-ji

Hondo-ji

Hondo-ji

Daiyūzan Saijō-ji 

Daiyūzan Saijō-ji (大雄山最乗寺) is a Zen temple that's hidden in the forests on Mount Myōjin (明神ヶ岳) near Hakone.

I wrote a comprehensive post about it (there's very little information available in English), which you can find here.

I took a shinkansen from Tokyo to Odawara (35 minutes), transferred to the Daiyūzan Line and got off at Daiyūzan Station (20 minutes). Then I walked to the temple (40 minutes). It's a great walk along a beautifully maintained path, and though it doesn't require Olympic fitness, it's uphill all the way. There's a regular bus service from Daiyūzan Station if you'd rather take it easy.

Access: tricky if you're not familiar with Japan's trains, but anything's possible with Google Maps! It takes roughly 90 minutes to get there from Tokyo Station.

Saijō-ji

Saijō-ji

Mitake-san and Mitake Valley

This area is at its peak right now, because it's on a higher altitude and therefore colder than Tokyo, but it should remain spectacular for the next two weeks.

I wrote about Mitake Valley in this post. I've been to Mitake-san, but haven't had a chance to write about it yet. Fortunately you'll find lots of English information if you Google it.

Access: Easy.

Mitake-san

I took this photo at Mitake Jinja in late September.
The trees should be a blazing red by now.

The trees are probably redder than the torii by now.

Mitake Valley in November

Mitake Valley in November

Mitake Valley in November

Honourable mentions

Two other spots that are worth a visit for their Japanese maples are Koishikawa Kōrakuen (小石川後楽園) and Rikugien (六義園), which probably has the biggest Japanese maple forest in Tokyo. Koishikawa is undergoing extensive renovations, though, and you won't be able to avoid scaffolding and blue tarpaulins in all your photos. Rikugien's disadvantage is that it can get unpleasantly crowded, but if you go very early – in at 9, out by 11 – you should be able to avoid the worst. I wrote about both in my 2011 post about Tokyo's best spots for autumn leaves.

Access: Very easy for both gardens, since they're close to train stations.

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